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Cloquet teens examine 'When a Country Goes to War'
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The documentary, "When a Country Goes to War," includes interviews woven with letters, photos, and film from Iraq. This is a still photo of an unidentified soldier aiming his weapon. (Photo from documentary "When a Country Goes to War")
A student film project at Cloquet High School is getting high praise from a small town touched by the war in Iraq. The film is called "When a Country Goes to War." It's a personal look at Cloquet's young people serving in the Iraq war. The film has generated new conversations across the small town. It's also given a group of at-risk students a chance to succeed.

Cloquet, Minn. — Eighteen students accepted the assignment last fall to pull together a documentary film that tells the stories of Cloquet's connections to the Iraq war.

In Cloquet, the war came home a year ago with the combat death of Marine Lance Cpl. Levi Angell, 20. Nearly everyone in town knew either Angell or his family, or someone else who's now serving in Iraq.

The project stirred up emotions even the filmmakers hadn't expected.

"We were surprised when we really starting digging in and just saw how many people are really impacted by this war," says Jason Richardson, an English teacher and executive producer for "When a Country Goes to War." "We looked at it as Cloquet, as a microcosm for the whole area. When you really look at it, everyone's impacted."

The film is a collage of soldier interviews, letters home, still photos, and newsreel footage from Iraq. And there are other voices in the film. A Vietnam veteran shares his experiences and his thoughts on the current conflict. And a soldier's father talks about coping day to day, while a son is in harm's way.

"You wake up every single day, and you hope for 7:30 to come around, because you'll know that that day you probably won't be contacted," the father says. "There won't be two soldiers showing up at your door to tell you that your kid has been killed."

The documentary features young men, many in uniform -- recent high school students now already combat veterans. Some express confidence in the Iraq mission. Others express sincere doubts. The soldiers share pride, fear, and, at times, gruesome details of combat -- graphic descriptions that senior Susan Paulson wasn't expecting.

"I think when I first read a couple of those letters, I didn't think that they would write about that to their family," Paulson says. "I thought that they'd be like, 'Oh yeah, it sucks over here but I'm dealing with it.' I didn't think they'd go into detail. And it just kind of shocked me."

Junior Ryan Lambert wasn't as surprised.

"Just because, I mean, it's war," Lambert says. "We're documenting war. I mean, there's no easy way about it, really."

A recent screening left hundreds of high school students silent. Teacher Bill Hudspith says another screening for the community generated an hour-long conversation.

"The biggest thing I heard from people is how powerful it is," Hudspith says. "They talk about 'a bullet whistling by my neck, and I can feel the wind.' And they talk about shooting, and shooting people, and their perception. And it really opens the door to what war is and how it impacts Cloquet. It's affecting us right now."

For the impact on the community, there was as much impact on the filmmakers -- a select group of high school students who weren't succeeding in school. The film was a special project in an experimental program called Light at the End of the Tunnel.

Bill Hudspith says the program's designed for a small number of promising students were just weren't making it. Many were in danger of not graduating. Their class was held at 18 students, about half the number in a typical classroom. It was a tough course, requiring college level writing and research, but with a lot of attention from teachers.

"These are not special ed kids," Hudspith says. "They're very gifted kids. But they, just for some reason, couldn't adjust or fit into the traditional classrooms."

The project demonstrates there are more ways to learn than tests and government standards. But it may be short-lived. English teacher Jason Richardson says there may not be enough money.

"I'm worried that with budget cuts, they will cut this class," Richardson says.

In that case, "When a Country Goes to War" may be the first and last project from an innovative program.

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